I stumbled upon this picture recently and it stopped me in my tracks. It represents the moment everything changed between me and my son. Our relationship has a clear delineation of life “before school” and life “after school” with school being present for the majority of the time.
This photo shows the final moment before he stepped on the bus for his first day of kindergarten. The last moment where I had a preconceived idea of how his school years would unfold. The moment where I was happy and optimistic about his future, having no idea what was to come. How my parenting would be challenged. How I would flounder with keeping an iron grip on the person I knew him to be while becoming vulnerable to the narrative teachers were giving me about what he was like as a student. So much has changed since that day.
During the early days of my thirteen year old’s life, it came natural to parent from a place of teaching, loving and extending patience to this growing, forming boy. My husband and I would glow with every pre-school accomplishment while our minds were busy hardwiring a script into our brains of his bright future as a student. We couldn’t wait for him to go to school and unlock the joy of learning.
Once school entered the picture, things got complicated. The veil was lifted and everything I thought I understood about my child started to be deconstructed as he formed an independent academic identity through his interests, his choices and his behaviors. How I thought it was going to go was exactly not the way it went.
Let me be clear – he didn’t do anything wrong. It was wrong of me to assume that I knew anything about this child. What I thought I knew was based on my own assumptions and personal experiences with school. The narrative that was hardwired into my brain – the one where he loved school and excelled – has been so difficult to erase and is the cause of much of our tension and frustration.
Reconciling who my child is vs. who I want him to be is a daily struggle for me. I’ve written about these issues before, but this time my reflections are less about him and more about my role as a parent and how my choices and reactions are shaping the connection I have with him. I’m so fearful that we are approaching another defining line in our relationship, but this time it’s “before my mom went crazy” and “after my mom went crazy.”
I used to take comfort in hopeful mile markers I made for myself. First, it was that things would surely be better by third grade. Then when they weren’t, that things would work themselves out before he got to middle school. And now in eighth grade, the beacon of hope that things would be better before high school is diminishing every time I open Progress Book and see grades that are sliding in the wrong direction. The rational brain in me has resigned to the fact that this is something that we will always have to manage. That he is not going to wake up one day magically able to organize his binder and remember what homework he has to do. The emotional side of my brain is exhausted, and admittedly at times resentful, and wishes there was some pill or intervention that would turn this around.
I try so hard to use school as a tool to bring out the best in both of us, but it generally works the opposite way and brings out the worst in us. Every day, I promise myself that today is the day we keep the peace. That I won’t get upset when I see the F or discover the missing assignments. I vow to never use language like “It seems like you don’t care,” or “WHY didn’t you do your work?” Parenting 101 – never ask a kid a question that starts with “why,” yet here I am. I secretly cringe when I overhear friends gushing about how amazing school is for their children because every morning I wake up grateful that I am one day closer to landing this turbulent plane ride.
What I know for sure is that yelling, frustration and punishment is not the way to manage a child that has deep struggles with executive functioning and has had their confidence as a student completely extinguished. I also know that we have reached an age where his learning obstacles are now tangled with a really messy developmental phase and it’s nearly impossible to piece apart what is on the chain of average and what is a concern. My reactions are selfish and rooted in desperation to find any shred of control in a situation that has completely gone rogue. We are all in a state of becoming and I am trying to make sure that whatever we all become through this experience is better than how we started.
At minimum, I have pledged to start and end the day on a positive note. No checking grades in the morning or right before bed. I compliment anything I can possibly find and celebrate the smallest steps like when he suggested he should add one more sentence to his English homework. And every night before he goes to bed, I tell him this sentence, “You are exactly who I hoped you would be.” Because what I always, always know for certain is that he isn’t who I expected him to be… he is so much more.